Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Keep off the Grass

When my son came home on a holiday about six months back, he left behind his copy of ‘Keep off the Grass’ by Karan Bajaj. I promptly picked it up and kept it safe in my bookshelf with absolutely no intention of reading it, dismissing it as a clone of Chetan Bhagat’s ‘Five Point Someone’, an IIM version of the IIT experience described in the latter. Not that I did not like ‘Five Point Someone’. I just thought ‘Keep off the Grass’ must yet be another campus book. (Like chicklit, is campuslit a genre yet?)

Having read it now, I realize that nothing could have been farther from the truth.

The other day I undertook a train journey and took that paperback along. I found it engaging reading and laced with great humour.

It is about Samrat Ratan, a Yale valedictorian (That word was new to me, though I did know the words ‘valediction’ and ‘valedictory’) and a hotshot investment banker earning half a million in Wall Street, fed up with the money hungry, power hungry environment. It is not in his scheme of things to ‘bust your ass off become a millionaire by thirty’. He decides to quit and find solace from his restless and unsatisfactory life. Yearning for some soul searching, he decides to visit India where he hopes to return to his ‘roots’ and find the answers to his questions. The route he takes is rather unusual – he enrolls himself for his PGDBM at IIM Bangalore.

The book is seriously funny, if you get what I mean. Once the first semester begins, the protagonist realizes that the competitive atmosphere in Wall Street continues to chase him in the IIM. He cannot cope with the assignments and the uncountable quizzes. He develops addiction to marijuana (grass) and this tells on his academic accomplishments. His self-esteem and self-confidence plummet. He hates the mess that he has got himself into and begins to question his decision to come to India, and wonders whether his search will yield him any fruit at all.

Comparisons with ‘Five Point Someone’ are inescapable. In ‘Keep off the Grass’ too, the hero has two classmates (Vinod Singh who is a Kargil warrior and Shine Sarkar who is an IITian) as his partners in all he does. All three share a contempt for the inhuman nature of the rat-race, and often feel alienated in it. The book raises some basic questions which haunt us every day.

Samrat is on a search, but he doesn’t quite know what he is looking for. His quirky quest for self-discovery takes him on a rickety, potholed ride through Bangalore, Jaisalmer, Dharamshala and Benares. The roller-coaster takes him to places, plights and people he had not prepared himself for. Like a night in the prison, for example or getting inducted to Vipassana meditation, having sex with a Danish hippie in the Himalayas, hanging out with a cannibal on the banks of the Ganga, and peddling soap to the formidable Raja Bhaiya in Benares.

What I liked most about the book is the odd one-liner Bajaj throws in: questioning the government’s ban of narcotics, Sarkar observes, ‘It's like me wanting to make potatoes illegal because I don't like their taste’. When asked ‘Any questions?’ at the end of a talk, Samrat wants to ask, ‘Yes, I have one question, can you please tell me where I can score some marijuana in Mumbai?’ And another is the way the chapters conclude. Words from the last sentence of each chapter form the title of the next – it is a continuum.

I did not quite care for the liberal dose of philosophy, though indulging in which, I thought was not consistent with the protagonist’s age (just as not liking it does not quite suit mine!)

I would not say this is a masterpiece but it is definitely worth a read. If you are a twenty-something like my son, you will realize that the questions which come to you at this age frequently (What do i want to do in life? Is this the right thing to do? Why should I do it? And many others) occur to everyone. If you are a sixty-something like me, it will give you a keener insight into the minds of your kids and you will realize why they do what they do. In either case, it tugs at a personal chord.

One reason I liked ‘Keep off the Grass’ must be that Karan Bajaj acts as my spokesman. For, as he makes Vinod say, ‘Books give you a funny kind of solace, that you are not alone, and someone, somewhere thinks exactly like you, and articulates it better.’ Read it with an open mind, you will definitely enjoy it.

Monday, December 06, 2010


What's the integral of 1/cabin?

Y: A natural log cabin.

X: No, a houseboat – you forgot to add the c!

If you do not understand the joke embedded in the above Q&A, gentle reader, read no more. I’m sorry, but, at the cost of sounding supercilious, let me say, what follows will go above your head.

Those who have their mathematical bearings in place will know that the joke relies on calculus; to be more specific, the fact that the differential coefficient of the logarithm of x is 1/x and therefore the integral of 1/x is log x + c. The c is something which many beginners forget. Thus, the integral of 1/cabin is ‘log cabin + sea’ or a houseboat! QED.

Perhaps fewer readers would have sped away from this page, had I begun with a simpler question:

Q: Why do mathematicians like nature parks?

A: Because of the natural logs.

Here's a joke involving basic mathematics:

There are only three kinds of people in the world: those who can count, and those who can't.

This implies, of course, that the person making the statement belongs to the latter category.

But mathematicians are strange people. Not for them the simple and straightforward jokes like these. They refine (read ‘complicate’) it to make it incomprehensible to the reader. See these:

There are only 10 types of people in the world —
those who understand binary, and those who don't.

Those who understand binary will certainly be quick to grasp the joke because, in the binary, the expression 10 means 1x 21 + 0 = 2. Others would most certainly draw a blank.

Like I did when I was first asked, ‘Why do real programmers confuse between Halloween and Christmas?’ I knew Christmas was on the 25th December. To assist me in solving the conundrum, I was proffered the information that Halloween fell on the 31st October but it did not help matters. The puzzle is based on the fact that just as ‘Dec’ which, to laymen, is the short form of December, is Decimal to mathematicians, October is abbreviated to Oct, which, to mathematicians is Octal. As Dec 25 is 2 x 101 + 5 = 25 and Oct 31 is 3 x 81 + 1 = 25. No wonder the numerophiles confuse between Halloween and Christmas.

Any self-respecting layman knows the trite line: Why did the chicken cross the road?’ The answer is ‘To get to the other side.’ A mathematical variation follows as: ‘Why did the chicken cross the Möbius strip?’ As you might know, the Möbius Strip is a paper band made by giving one twist to a strip, making a surface with only one ‘side’ (and only one ‘edge’). So you realize that the standard answer To get to the other sideis impossible.

One who knows this unique feature of this contraption named after German mathematician August Ferdinand Möbius who discovered it in 1858 (Johann Benedict Listing, another mathematician from the same country, who discovered it independently in the same year was not as lucky) would be ready with the answer, ‘To get to the same side.

I spoke of superciliousness, a trait mathematicians are not innocent of. Hear this story:

Two mathematicians are drinking beer in a pub. The first one tells the second that the average person knows very little about basic math. The second one disagrees, and claims that most people can cope with a reasonable amount of math.

When the first mathematician goes off to the washroom, the second calls over the waitress. He tells her that in a few minutes, after his friend has returned, he will call her over and ask her a question; all she has to do is answer, ‘One third x cubed.’

She agrees, and goes off mumbling to herself.

The first guy returns and the two continue the conversation. The second proposes a bet to prove his point. He says he will ask the waitress an integral, and the first, chuckling within that he has already won the wager, agrees.

The second man calls over the waitress orders another beer and then asks her, ‘What is the integral of x squared?’

The waitress says, ‘One third x cubed.’ Then, while walking away, she turns back and says, ‘Plus a constant.’

The waitress, chosen as an example of someone not expected to know much mathematics beyond adding up the bill, turns out to know enough calculus to correct the mathematician's omission!

Friday, December 03, 2010


My neighbours in the hostel in Jabalpur were Devendra Kumar Sharma from Pilibhit and Brajesh Kumar Sinha from Gaya. Though from different states, they knew each other for a long time, from their BITS, Pilani days. While Sharma was vocal and conservative, Sinha was affable and soft-spoken. Sharma did not, at least in the initial days, like the idea of a South Indian ‘who cannot even speak Hindi’ treated me with a hint of disdain. Sinha said he was delighted to have me for a neighbour.


Why was he interested in befriending me? To say that Sinha had leftist leanings would be an understatement. He was quite closely associated with The Movement. It was because of this interest in The Movement that he found me worthy of being cultivated. Not that I was a fellow-traveller. Sinha found ‘a free Malayalam tutor’ in me and perceived an opportunity to learn my mother tongue and be able to communicate with his compatriots in Kerala, like he did with those in Bengal by learning Bengali from a classmate in BITS.


Sinha was a fast learner. In a week’s time, he had mastered the alphabet. In less than a month, he could read copies of the Mathrubhoomi weekly and the Yuktivaadi monthly I used to subscribe to. His knowledge of Bengali helped, because it shares a lot of words of Sanskrit origin, with Malayalam. By the end of the ten months we were together, he could read and understand Malayalam articles and short stories without my help. (Jayanarayanan and K P Nirmal kumar were his favourite authors.) He never made an attempt to write in Malayalam. ‘The curly characters in the alphabet of your language are the limit – they’re beyond me,’ he’d say.


It was in reciprocation of sorts that Sinha clued me in on the nuances of the sher-shaayri. My familiarity with the language certainly helped, but it also demonstrated how little Hindi we learn in schools and colleges, how rudimentary our knowledge of this form of literature is.


With its own imagery, notations, style and cadences, shers conjure up an interesting world for you to savour. Sher is a beautiful way of saying something – anything from the mundane to the sublime. Love, they say, is difficult to express, but sher can express love in a way nothing else can.


jab bhi khayaal aaya to aapka aaya
aankein band kee to khwaab aapka aaya
socha yaad kar lun khudaa ko pal do pal
par honth khule to naam aapka aaya


(In my waking moments, all I thought of was you/Whenever I dreamt, it was of you,/I thought I’d pray to the God for a while/But it was your name that came to my lips.)


A deftly crafted sher tugs at some chord close to your heart and stirs our deep emotions.


tadap kar dekho kisee kee chah mein,

pataa chale pyar kyaa hotaa hai
mil jaaye har koi yun hi rahon mein,

to kaise pataa chale intazaar kyaa hotaa hai


(Only if you pine in your desire for someone/Will you know what love is./If you meet someone by chance on the road/How would you know what waiting is.)


Unenviable is the plight of the one whose beloved does not know the intensity of his feelings.


na thi jisko humare pyar ki kadar
ittefaq se usiko chah rahe the hum
aur usi diye ne jalaye humare haath
jisko hawa se bacha rahe the hum


(The one I was in love with/Knew not how deep my passion was/The very flame I was protecting from the winds/Was the one that scalded my hands.)


Heartbreak which is, paradoxically, even more difficult to express, is the theme of innumerable shers. The pain of a heart break has been beautifully moulded into words in shers by many a shaayar.


log apna banake chhod dete hai,
rishte gairon se jod lete hai,
hum to ek phool bhi na tod sake,
log to dil bhi tod dete hai.


Some make you theirs and desert you/To make friends with certain others/I can’t even pluck a flower/But some think not much of breaking a heart.)


dhokhaa diyaa thaa jab usne mujhe,
zindagi se mein naaraaz tha,
phir sochaa unhen dil se nikaal dun,
dekhaa to woh kambakth dil bhi unke paas thaa


(When she walked out on me/I was angry with the whole world/Then I thought I’d throw her out of my mind/But discovered the blasted thing was with her!)


lehron mein doobte rahey, kinara na mila,
tujhse bichhad ke fir koi doojaa na milaa,
kuch log thodi der ke liye achey lage,
magar hum jiske ho sakey koi waisaa na milaa


(Tossed by the waves, I reached no shore/After you left me, none else I could love/Some looked okay for a while/But none was like the one I’d lost my heart to.)


It is not unusual for the shaayar to turn philosophical.


zindagi kyaa kyaa rang dikhaati hai
kabhi hansaati hai to kabhi rulaati hai
is zindagi ka bharosaa mat karnaa yaaro
jo kuchh deti hai wo chhin bhi leti hai


The games that Life plays!/It smiles at times and at times it makes you cry./Don’t depend on this Life, friends,/For she takes away what she gives.)

Shers would be replete with words like pyaar, hawa, chehra, narmi, taareef, nafrat, bewafaa, zindagi etc. The staple raw material of the shaayar is the repertoire of words that rhyme with these – like deedaar, dawa, sehra,garmi, shareef, ulfat, khafaa, bandagi etc respectively. (It was perhaps a shaayar -wannabe who translated 'sweat-equity' in the Kochi IPL context as 'haseena ka paseena'.)


But then I digress: I was suddenly transported to the sher mode. Cutting back to Jabalpur, my stint with Telephones was short-lived. As a result, I lost touch with my friends in due course. After a lot of effort, I could track down Sharma working in a telephone exchange somewhere in the foothills of the Himalayas, but Sinha, I was told, had left Telephones around the same time I did to re-join The Movement and was killed in an encounter.

Thursday, December 02, 2010


I was all of nineteen in 1967 when I boarded the train to Jabalpur to report for my first job. The only border of Kerala I had seen till then being the Arabian Sea, my heart was beating rather fast at the thought of having to travel by three trains and cross several states to reach my destination which had an alien culture and a language foreign to me was spoken.

I could claim that I ‘knew’ Hindi, for I had passed the ‘Rashtrabhasha’ examination of the Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha and, as the citation in my degree certificate went, ‘having been placed in the I Class in Part II – Second Language – Hindi of the Bachelor of Science Examination …’. But when face to face with someone who knew only Hindi, I was all at sea: at a total loss of words. How would I survive?

The question of survival of another kind haunted me even before I reached my destination. It was in mid-December, the peak of winter, that I was travelling. Coming from Kerala, I had used no woollen garment till then, had not known how severe winter could get and had not a shred of warm clothing to protect me. Vests were not very common those days and I did not have any. My only armour that would protect me from the elements was the shirt.

I had a reservation till Madras, and a telegram had been sent for a reservation from Madras to Itarsi Junction and from there to Jabalpur. On reaching Madras, I checked up at the Enquiries counter in the Railway Station, to be told, predictably, that the wire had not come. Which meant I had to travel in an unreserved compartment for about 36 hours to cover 1,400 kms.

I got down in the dead of night at Itarsi Junction. My experience in Madras had taught me that it would be foolish even to hope for reserved accommodation for the onward journey to Jabalpur. The train I had to catch was at 3 in the morning. Three hours in a chill night on the open platform with no more than a cotton shirt to shield the upper half of your body is not exactly a pleasing prospect. I wondered if I would survive that night, leave alone the ten months in Jabalpur, an unfamiliar town which had an alien culture and spoke a language different from mine.

I do not recall any details of my journey to Jabalpur. A day and two nights in the unreserved compartment had sapped me of all energy. Someone must have pushed the zombie that I was into the Howrah express.

It was thus that I reached Jabalpur on a Sunday morning around 8 O’clock. I hopped on to a rickshaw which dropped me at the main gate of the campus. It was a sprawling campus. I walked towards the main building which as about fifty meters inside. All my worldly possessions were in the navy blue plastic hanging on my left shoulder.

As I neared the building, a well-built man emerged. Suited and booted, as they say. He must be, I surmised, Mr P S Mathur, the Director of the Centre to whom I was supposed to report. Whether or why an officer of the rank of a Director should be there in the porch at 8 on a Sunday morning to receive a newly recruited trainee did not cross my mind then.

I approached him tentatively and introduced myself.

Andar aao,’ he ordered and I followed.

As we climbed the steps, he asked me, ‘Kaunsi batch?

I told him.

Kahaan se aaye ho?

‘Kerala se.’ (That was my debut in conversational Hindi.)

Keral bahut door hai na?

‘Yes, sir.’

He opened the register lying on the table and asked me, ‘Kya naam bataaya?

I furnished the information.

As he scanned the list of names, I spotted my name in the log and pointed towards it.

Block 2. Kamra No 237. Teesri manzil par.

‘Thank you, sir.’

I proceeded to Block 2. I trudged up to the third floor (No lift, you see) to find that all rooms had numbers beginning in 3. I found my room on the second floor.

Lesson Number 1: Teesri manzil in Hindi = Second floor in English.

After bath and breakfast, I slept. I woke up, had lunch and slept. Had a sleep deficit to correct. I had an early dinner and slept again.

Being an early bird, I woke up before dawn. As it was very chill, it would take a brave man to have a bath so early. I stayed in bed, but could hear someone singing, ‘Yeh na thi hamari qismat ki wisaal-e-yaar hota, agar aur jeete rehte yahee intezaar hota!

I was intrigued. Who could that be? Getting up, I opened the door and peeped out . Nobody. The day was just breaking. I stepped out towards the source of the melody.

It was from the other wing of the block. I walked towards it. There he was! At the other end of the corridor, wielding the long stick at the end of which was the swab-cloth was the gentleman who had received me and directed me to my room.

Lesson Number 2: Everyone who wears a jacket is not a Director.